Saturday, August 16, 2014

The myths about PMS

PMS as a strategy for 'driving away' infertile males ?
An unproductive story of reproductive success and PMS

By Cordelia Fine, University of Melbourne
It’s been a mixed week for women and their hormones.
When Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics, a Cambridge mathematician suggested it would “put to bed many myths about women and mathematics”, one of which is the idea that females are not exposed to enough prenatal testosterone to excel in the field.
At the same time, other hormone-related myths were given fresh life by a new evolutionary story claiming to have uncovered the reason why women become “unbearable to live with” once a month, as one news report put it.
Michael Gillings, a population geneticist at Macquarie University, suggests in an article published in the journal Evolutionary Applications that premenstrual syndrome (PMS) evolved because it enabled women to repel men who failed to make them pregnant.

The fantastic past

In our ancestral past, the story goes, women would have had many fewer menstrual cycles due to greater numbers of pregnancies and extended breastfeeding. Being partnered with an infertile man would therefore have gone hand-in-hand with regular menstruation.
Premenstrual syndrome could save ancestral women from evolutionarily disastrous reproductive failure. Having successfully driven off an infertile partner by means of bad-temperedness administered on a monthly schedule, women would be at liberty to seek out a fresh victim.
A well-rehearsed criticism of this kind of fanciful evolutionary speculation is that many aspects of contemporary human conditions are not adaptations; they are not “for” anything.
Contrary to popular “paleofantasy”, which holds that we embody perfected design for a long-gone era, evolutionary change is a compromised, continuously jerry-rigged process that has to always act within the constraints of what’s already there. This means many of our characteristics, including some that are typical or universal, have no evolutionary purpose.
Often, speculating about what adaptive purpose is served by some feature of a pocket of contemporary life is to board the express train to Storyland.
But Gillings argues that the high frequency of the currently “maladaptive” condition of PMS, with “often … significant personal, social and economic costs”, points to an offsetting adaptive benefit from the past.

Not as bad as all that

However, the picture painted of the incapacitating effect on modern women of their reproductive system is far too bleak.
Only a small percentage of women (estimates have ranged from as low as 1.3% to around the 5% to 8% mark) have premenstrual symptoms that are genuinely debilitating and merit a diagnosis of premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

The picture painted of the incapacitating effect on modern women of their reproductive system is far too bleak. TipsTimesAdmin/Flickr, CC BY

And while 80% of women do indeed report experiencing what Gillings describes as PMS, what this actually means is that they’ve experienced potentially as little as one of a long and generic checklist of “symptoms”, such as abdominal bloating, tension, and poor sleep.
What’s more, a careful and comprehensive 2012 review of studies on mood and the menstrual cycle:
failed to provide clear evidence in support of the existence of a specific premenstrual negative mood syndrome in the general population.
Of the 47 studies identified as of being of adequate quality, only 15% found the expected link between negative mood and the premenstrual phase.
And when, in a different study, researchers looked directly for associations between moods and the ovarian steroid hormones (estrogen and progesterone) assumed to drive them, they mostly failed to find any links.
While there were a few significant correlations here and there, mood and hormones were mostly unrelated. In line with the review study, menstrual cycle phase was also largely unrelated to mood.
What did predict mood well, by contrast, was perceived stress and physical health, leading the researchers to conclude:
Taken together, our findings suggest that natural fluctuations of ovarian hormones do not contribute significantly to variations in the daily moods of healthy women.

Fertility fantasy

Another major derailment for Gillings' story comes from closer examination of the implicit assumption that it’s very easy for a man to impregnate a fertile woman.
Indeed, the premise that a man can father vast crops of children by spreading his seed widely is treated as an axiom of evolutionary psychology, and serves as the foundation of claims about evolved sex differences in mating preferences.
But there are many reasons why conception might fail to take place following one single sexual act, even if both parties are fertile. It can take several months for a typical modern couple to achieve an intended pregnancy.
For women to have evolved relationship-curdling tendencies in such circumstances would hardly seem to be adaptive.
Remarkably, Gillings suggests the idea that women are maladaptively driven to corrode relationships with their irritability and mood swings will help to “depathologise” PMS.
That seems rather optimistic; attributing behaviour to internal, biological factors doesn’t neccessarily have destigmatising effects. It seems at least as likely that Gillings’ evolutionary story will instead reinforce and legitimate negative stereotypes of women as irrationally emotional.
And that should irritate everyone, no matter what day of the month it is.
The Conversation
Cordelia Fine receives funding from an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Is it simply natural that men are more obsessed than women with all things automotive? Is it the case that even male monkeys would spend a lot of time in the garage working on their cars if they could? Research shows that in several species of monkeys, males seem to prefer things like throwing balls and rolling Tonka trucks across the floor. Is all that time men spend out in the garage simply biological destiny?[1]

[1]Eliot, Lise (2011), “The Truth about Boys and Girls,” His Brain, Her Brain: How We’re Wired Differently, Scientific American Mind, p. 6. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Some Things Maybe You Didn't Know About Sex Differences?

1.      Couples that share housework have a higher likelihood of divorce compared to more traditional couples where the wife does the bulk of the housework.

2.      Female Komodo dragons die younger than male dragons because they spend so much effort building their nests, defending their eggs and providing food for their young. This causes the females to lose weight and die at a younger age. In short, housework kills them.

3.      In general, women prefer a larger number of options in a choice set than men. This, of course, explains why my wife has 157 pairs of shoes and I have 5.

4.      Women have higher IQ scores than men on average, reversing the gender gap that existed 50 years ago when men had higher scores.

5.      Men enjoy sweet foods more than women in general, but women enjoy eating chocolate more. Go figure.

6.      Men defecate more often than women. Why do the blokes want the toilet seat up?

7.      Women vomit more often than men. Why do the girls want the toilet seat down?

8.      There is no reliable gender difference in multi-tasking. One of the biggest gender myths out there is that women are better.

9.      Women have lower stimulus thresholds and lower tolerance levels for pain. The popular myth has it the other way around.

10.  Cursing out loud helps men deal with sudden pain, but it does nothing for women, who merely feel shame about using foul language.

11.  Women dream about clothing and apparel more than men (see point 3 about shoe options).

12.  Women suffer from headaches more frequently. (Not just an excuse for not having sex?)

13.  Women can make finer distinctions among smells and tastes. (Let her do the cooking?)

14.  Women can make finer distinctions among colours. (Let her do the interior designing?)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

She Really Does Have a Headache!

That men have a stronger sex drive than women has no doubt led to marital conflicts from time to time. The stereotypical excuse for a wife not wanting to have sex with her husband is that she has a headache. As it turns out, women do have headaches more frequently than men. However, it also turns out that one of the best non-pharmaceutical cures for a headache can be sex – go figure!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New Ad Trend: Beating the Shit Out of Men

Not only is it fun to denigrate men in ads, it’s even more fun to beat the shit out of them. One study recently published in the Journal of Advertising examined trends in Super Bowl ads and ads for the top five most advertised brands in the U.S. In addition to the obvious trend of denigrating males, they found that the hot, new trend in advertising humour was women committing acts of violence against men.

It turns out that there are two distinct types of ads. In the “general” category, the man gets the shit beat out of him for no apparent reason, as in the ad for Dodge Ram pickup truck depicting a wedding scene. Instead of saying “I do” as part of the normal wedding vows, the bride head butts the groom unconscious and tosses him in the back of the truck. Guess they’re targeting female drivers – just a guess.
In the second category, the ad shows the man as deserving the beating based on his actions. My favourite is an ad for the Burger King Steakhouse Burger, where a female teacher asks a male colleague what he has done to deserve the burger he is feasting on. When he replies “I was “just hungry”, she slaps his face, calling him a “self-important, narcissistic bas...” just before the fade out to the voice over.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dangerous Strategy

A month or so ago, I referred to men as the “expendable” sex, describing them as essentially reckless, fragile, and potentially dangerous. We are. And we’ve created a lot of problems. Wouldn’t the world be a better place without all these lethal, testosterone-filled humans ruining everything? Yes, I can almost feel female readers giving this possibility some serious consideration. But seriously, why would nature give rise to such a destructive organism in the first place?

Dissident feminist Camille Paglia once quipped “If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts.” This probably seems a bit harsh if you’re a member of the fairer sex, but as with many hyperboles, there’s an underlying element of truth. For good and for ill, men have invented much of the technology that provides the “creature comforts” we now take for granted.

What about women? Yes, women have invented many things, including the modern window frame, Kevlar, windscreen wipers, the automatic drip coffee maker, the first successful anti-herpes drug, and anti-dandruff shampoo, among other things. And women would no doubt have invented many more things if given equal opportunity to do so over the years. But it is a simple empirical fact that most of the technological innovations that changed the course of humanity were invented by men. As I teach my students, necessity isn’t the mother of invention so much as curiosity is the father of invention.

There are downsides to all these male inventions to be sure. Global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, plane crashes, automobile accidents, acid rain, and a punctured ozone layer spring to mind immediately. But let’s be honest, how long do you think you would last in the world circa, say, 1761, before all this technology so obviously ruined the planet? My guess is that many of us would find human existence 250 years ago to be a brutal struggle for survival rather than a chance to live in a pristine, peaceful, utopia uncontaminated by the evil inventions of mankind. On balance, I’ll take the creature comforts and figure out what to do about global warming later.

Indeed, everything about the male character suggests an orientation to explore and modify the environment for the better, albeit from a very short-term perspective. Men, more than women, believe they can master or control their destiny. They are more likely to pursue careers in science, math, technology, and other professions related to mastery over nature. Men will persist in trying to master a difficult task longer than women, and no I’m not just talking about computer games.

Many feminists have argued that none of this is natural; that these kinds of gender differences reflect socialized gender roles rather than any inherently male characteristic. But many of these same underlying patterns can be observed in infants and non-human species. Separate an infant girl from her mother with a glass barrier and she will sit and cry, but a baby boy will crawl to both edges of the barrier and bang on the glass to see if there is a way through. She accepts her unfavourable environment; he struggles against his to try to improve it.

Some species enjoy the advantage of the genetic shuffle provided by sexual reproduction (males and females), while also having access to asexual reproduction at other times. This ability to switch back and forth, called heterogamy, offers a glimpse of some of the benefits males bring to the table. When the environment is stable, asexual reproduction tends to dominate as it allows for very efficient reproduction. Each new organism is an exact replica of its parent, a preety good strategy if that parent has experienced a hospitable environment. However, when the environment changes and becomes potentially lethal, via predation, a lack of food, or a sudden climate change, sexual reproduction abounds, and a need for males arises.

The hydra reproduces asexually when conditions are good. When conditions are bad due to lack of food or an unusually cold winter, then some hydra begin to reproduce sexually. One hydra will develop egg-cells which can be combined with the sperm-cells of another hydra. The hydra interestingly is a hermaphrodite. That means it can be produce male gametes or female gametes or even both. But the male gametes are produced fundamentally when the organism needs to change in response to a hostile environment.

In other species, the emergence of males in tough times is even clearer. Consider aphids, the nasty little green bugs that generally ruin gardens all over the world. During the summer, when the temperature is hospitable, and the food supply abundant, asexual reproduction by females, called parthenogenesis, dominates resulting in a population of all female bugs. However, when autumn rolls around, and the temperature drops and the food supply becomes sparse, our little insect heroes switch to good old fashioned sex. Males start popping up all over the place and mate like mad. The resulting fertilized eggs are better able to survive the harsh winter, until the weather warms, the food supply replenishes, and the aphids begin reproducing asexually once again.

Males are needed when times are tough because sexual reproduction changes the organism to increase survival chances in tough times. Sexual reproduction creates better “survival machines” for potentially lethal environments. Does the human version of maleness, with its frontal lobes, opposing digits, and ability to traverse large distances, react to adversity by changing the environment as well as the organism; and does the emergence of global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, etc., suggest that men have gone too far?

In a 2005 interview, Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist and best-selling author of Are Men Necessary?, read a letter from a man asking that, if indeed men are no longer necessary would the fairer sex be willing to give back and do without all the innovations created by men? She then read his list of male accomplishments, which included physics, the Renaissance, the theory of relativity, the personal computer, the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and Beethoven.

Perhaps Ms. Dowd’s answer to the letter should have been “No, you men may not take your innovations with you. Your very purpose was to create a more livable human environment. Now that you’ve done that, you are free to die out. And by the way, some of your more recent inventions (A-bombs, H-bombs, ICBMs, etc.) no longer strike us women as creating a more livable environment, so we’re going to invent feminism to limit your access to these dangerous toys.”

Can women survive without men? If the world is stable, the answer is almost certainly “yes”. If females continued to create a more stable, livable environment after males have long since passed, then gene shuffling would become irrelevant, even detrimental. Instead, the perfect female would simply be “cloned” over and over via parthenogenesis – a world of identical Eves. But if the world gets nasty, women will once again turn to men. Not in the figurative sense of turning to men for protection or help. Women will literally turn (in)to men.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Advantages of Life Inside the Cave

Men do not, as the ridiculous stereotype suggests, go “into their caves” when they are experiencing negative emotions. Men single-mindedly work their shit out. We don’t need to talk to anybody. We just need to determine for ourselves what went wrong and how to stop this from happening again. When we’ve done this, we’ll return to our normal, happy selves and get on with our busy days. Simple – and very effective.

Mind you, this is not the same as avoiding or repressing negative emotions. That would be a psychological catastrophe. But not communicating about emotions and not dealing with them are two different things. Men deal with negative emotions by internalizing them. They become part of our life experiences, and therefore, contain important lessons about how to avoid screwing things up in the future.

Contrary to the prevailing political landscape of the day, it is women who do not handle their negative emotions particularly well. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out the medical evidence. Women experience more fear, more sadness, more worry, more stress, more guilt, more shame, and more disgust than men. About the only negative emotions where men prevail are boredom and anger (though even this depends on the target of the anger).

And when it comes to chronic negative emotions, the numbers aren’t even close. Women are more likely to diagnose themselves as being depressed from adolescence all the way into old age. Clinical diagnoses of unipolar depression are far more prevalent for women compared to men, and women are more likely to think about and attempt suicide, though men are more likely to actually get the job done.

Now I’m perfectly willing to accept the argument that many of these “diagnoses” reflect a biased, patriarchical psychiatric profession just looking for a reason to classify women as fragile, emotional weaklings. We covered that earlier in Why Men Stigmatize Menstruation (February) and That’s Hysterical! (February), and I’ll be the first to suggest that it applies here as well. But much of the research involves self-diagnosis. No psychiatric patriarchy to blame for these results. This is women describing their own state of affairs.

When we look at research addressing how men and women react to negative emotions we get an even clearer picture of which gender struggles the most. Research indicates that women ruminate over negative emotional experiences longer than men. Rumination reflects the inability to stop thinking about something troubling, and is viewed as a precursor to clinical depression. This suggests why women need to communicate their negative emotions – they can’t stop thinking about them! By contrast, men do not ruminate. They get over it. That cave is starting to look pretty good after all.

We’ve heard an awful lot about how important it is to communicate negative emotions to others, and of course, about how much better women are at doing this. But why communicate? What’s the point? Women talk about their negative emotions with those close to them (more often than not with other women) because they want sympathy. Now let’s closely consider what sympathy is.

When you sympathize with somebody who’s feeling bad you are essentially communicating that “I know just how you feel!” That’s the catch phrase for sympathy isn’t it? But if that other person is feeling bad to start with, then knowing just how they feel entails feeling kind of bad about the same thing, though perhaps not to the same degree. And the net effect of all this sympathising is that the person who initially felt bad feels a little better, as if some of the negative emotion has been passed along to the sympathizer.

Women don’t deal with their negative emotions so much as pass them off to the people they feel close to. How does this constitute a more sophisticated and noble approach to handling negative emotions? I’ll take the man cave every time. And when it comes to romantic relationships, things get even worse. Women detest when their men give them the “silent treatment”. How many men have heard something like “Can’t we just talk about it?”

But men don’t want to talk about it; they want to determine, by themselves, what went wrong and how to fix it. And contrary to what to women might think, once men have worked out a decent solution, we’ll be more than happy to chat all day long about it, even welcoming your input to improve the remedy further. We just don’t want to talk while we’re feeling bad. There’s no point because we haven’t worked out what to do about it.

Moreover, some women (and let me emphasize the word some), view their romantic partners in terms of the very simple principles: (a) I’m unhappy, (b) it is his fault, and (c) he has to change so I can be happy again. Let’s get this straight. The person in the relationship who is unhappy is the one with the problem. They are the one who needs to change, presuming of course, that they want to be happy, an assumption many married men have no doubt questioned from time to time.

Requiring your partner to change because you’re unhappy is the ultimate example of denying responsibility for your negative emotions. It’s passing the responsibility for how you feel to your partner! So, once again, give me the cave every time, provided of course, that a nice, pleasant conversation will eventually ensue about how to prevent all the unhappiness in the future.

Just to reiterate the point about not all women being the same, when my partner is upset about something, including something I said or did, she often goes days without speaking to me. Though not a word is spoken, I understand her completely. Women, you can use our cave any time you like.